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North Sumatra (Sumatera Utara) Travel Tips

4.0 stars

Insider advice for your North Sumatra (Sumatera Utara) vacation


JennyPenny
North Sumatra Trip -- Chapter 7: General Advice for North Sumatra Trip 3 stars
Seasoned travelers probably already know this, but just in case, I listed some general advice below:

(1) Travel lightly where possible.
(2) Get cash in Indonesian currency from ATMs while you are in major cities. Try to carry smaller bills as it will be difficult to get change once you travel outside the cities.
(3) Beware of thieves. Lock your belongings if they stay in your room. Lock your backpack while you carry it. Keep your valuables, especially your passport, safe.
(4) Bargain whenever you can. Start at half the person’s asking price and work your way up until you are both satisfied with the exchange.
(5) Dress conservatively.
(6) Wear sunscreen and a hat.
(7) Bring insect repellent.
(8) Wear flip-flops or sandals in the bathrooms and showers, as well as when crossing wet areas on a hike/trek.
(9) Take precautions on a hike/trek (e.g., wear good shoes, be careful with bugs and leeches, drink plenty of water, use an experienced guide, etc.).
(10) Ask lots of people lots of questions.


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JennyPenny
North Sumatra Trip -- Chapter 6: Danau Toba to Jakarta 1 stars
Sigh… I had such a nice relaxing vacation in Tuk Tuk, that it was tough to face the hard trip back to Medan and eventually Jakarta. I thankfully already had my plane ticket, but still had to deal with the getting back to Medan via bus. The young man from Tuk Tuk who helped me get my bus ticket certainly could have picked a better company, but alas, I was stuck. I later found out that the ALS bus is available at certain times and you can pay once on board. I had the unfortunate luck of riding in a very cramped mini-van with not-so-pleasant locals for way too long instead. It was awful. It also cost a small fortune, which made things even more unfair. Because of the time it took to travel, I ended up staying at the same hotel in Medan before heading to the airport the next morning. Needless to say, I was not really bright-eyed or bushy-tailed on the way to Jakarta.

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JennyPenny
North Sumatra Trip -- Chapter 5: Things to Do in Danau Toba and Pulau Samosir 4 stars
There is not a lot to do in Danau Toba and Pulau Samosir and in the town of Tuk Tuk in particular, but I was okay with this as I was looking to chill out anyway. There are a variety of ways to relax and have fun. Visitors can swim in the lake, soak up the sun’s rays (but not too long!), read a book at one of the cafes or restaurants, take naps whenever you want to, get a massage or salon treatment (a Batak massage can hurt initially, though!), chat with the locals, play soccer/football with children, say “Horas” (traditional Batak greeting) to folks on the street while you take a leisurely stroll, sample the foods at small restaurants (try the pizzas), watch the stars at night (wear insect repellent), go for a hike/trek (guides are easy to find, just negotiate early on), rent a bicycle or motorbike and drive through the rural areas (I rented a bicycle which slowed things down and allowed me to take in more sights and sounds), buy some tacky souvenirs, listen to some very fun music or watch traditional dancing at Bagus Bay (hotel near Tabo Cottages), learn to cook at Juwita Café, and see some old ruins in Ambarita or Tomok.


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JennyPenny
North Sumatra Trip -- Chapter 4: Danau Toba and Pulau Samosir 4 stars
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
The bus from Medan will drop you off in the town of Parapat, which is near Danau Toba and Pulau Samosir. I took a small mini-van from the drop-off point to the ferry dock, which cost less than US$1.00. Once at the ferry dock, I was fortunate with my timing as there was a market going on. I picked up various fruits and snacks to replenish my supplies and have some items handy in case there wasn’t much selection on the island. The ferries are medium-sized wooden boats, mainly meant for transporting locals and their goods. It took about an hour or two for the boat to fill up before departure. Watch what the locals pay so you don’t part with too much money. If I remember correctly, the fare was less than US$2.00 per person.

The lake is gigantic and the surroundings are beautiful. Take it all in while you putter along on the boat. It is the largest lake in Southeast Asia if you can believe it. Danau Toba is actually inside a crater of a volcano. Pulau Samosir is a large island in the middle of Danau Toba. The ferry from Parapat will drop you off where you ask it to, but most tourists, like me, get off at the first landing, which is called Tuk Tuk.

Sadly, tourism has dwindled in Tuk Tuk and nearby towns over the years. I spoke with several locals who told me that the area once boomed with local and foreign tourists, but things have slowed down a lot. Several places of accommodation and restaurants that were once well-known and busy have since closed. That being said, I stayed at Tabo Cottages and loved it! You can see its big sign from the ferry as you approach the ferry landing. The rooms were clean and relatively modern. You can bargain with the owners (a European woman and a Batak man), who are friendly and knowledgeable. The whole atmosphere of the place is relaxed and the garden touches are nice. Don’t expect television, internet, or international calls, however. These amenities are expensive and/or not available like most places on the island. There is a small restaurant at Tabo Cottages, which is where I ended up taking most of my meals because the food was fresh and delicious. I recommend their homemade breads, vegetarian burgers, and any of their breakfast dishes. Visitors can swim in the lake in front of the cottages, too. Just be careful as there is no sandbar, just some concrete-type steps. The water grasses can be a little annoying, but you can swim pass them. Note: There are no lifeguards.


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JennyPenny
North Sumatra Trip -- Chapter 3: Medan to Danau Toba 3 stars
The primary way to get from Medan to Danau Toba is by bus. I took a taxi to a bus company to purchase my ticket for the next day. I have heard that the best companies are ALS and ANS. Both charge similar prices, but budget-seekers may want to ask around. I took ALS and found their service to be fine. A one-way fare was about US$5.00. The bus was large enough and had air conditioning. The buses depart from Amplas Terminal, which is about 6 to 7 kilometers south from the city on Jalan SM Raja. The main disappointment was not being able to purchase a round-trip ticket, so I was later left at the mercy of dodgy companies and random schedules on the way back… The bus trip took about four hours. I slept most of the way. Be sure to keep your bags with you at all times.

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JennyPenny
North Sumatra Trip -- Chapter 2: Medan 2 stars
Medan is the capital city of North Sumatra. I find that people either love it or hate it. Unfortunately, I am probably in the latter camp since I didn’t have many good experiences there. Like many travelers, I tried to just think of the place as a transit point on my way to Danau Toba and Pulau Samosir. Perhaps if I had had more time to get to know the place, I might have a different opinion. In an effort of fairness, I list positives and negatives below:

POSITIVES:

(1) Medan is home to a wonderful dessert called “Bika Ambon.” It is a special rice-flour cake that has a funky kind of chewy texture. The flavor is hard to describe, but it’s sweet (but not awfully sweet). The cake comes in yellow or green. The latter is green because it is cooked with pandan leaves. You can find the cake in different sizes at local stores or at the airport, where travelers typically purchase them in bulk to share as presents.
(2) The Parisada Hindu Dharma Temple, which is at the corner of Jalan Teuku Umar and Jalan H. Zainal Arifin is worth a visit, as well as the black-domed Grand Mosque, which is located at the corner of Jalan Mesjid Raya and Jalan SM Raja. Both places of devotion and worship accept donations. Dress conservatively when visiting the temple and mosque. Women should cover their heads with scarves, too. Ask permission before taking any photographs of people or things. For example, an older gentleman told me that pictures were only permitted outside of the Hindu temple when I paid a visit.
(3) Medan has its share of malls and you can find some good deals if you take your time. I recommend picking up some cds or vcds, as well as going to a salon for special treatments (e.g., creambath for your hair, neck and shoulder massage, manicure, and pedicure).
(4) If you get the chance to talk with people who work at non-governmental organizations, you’ll hear some fascinating stories, get a good dose of hospitality, and perhaps get some inspiration.

NEGATIVES:

(1) Pollution in Medan is terrible. Bring a handkerchief and/or face mask for when you are outside on a motorbike, motorized rickshaw, or even while you walk. The wind can also blow lots of dust, too, so sunglasses or glasses are recommended.
(2) Women travelers beware as local men often like to stare, point, make comments, etc. I really recommend wearing conservative clothing like long-sleeved shirts and long pants or skirts, as well as a scarf to wrap around your head and hair.
(3) I found the taxi drivers to be awful. I was surprised by how rude some of them actually were to me even though I speak Indonesian and was very polite! Bargain heavily before entering a vehicle. Drivers like to avoid the use of a meter, but try your best to get them to do so. Beware, however, as some meters are rigged! I suggest asking someone at your hotel or a local for advice about taxi prices for particular distances so you don’t get totally ripped off.
(4) The thieves in Medan suck! A team of them were in a mini-van with me one time and managed to steal my camera. One of the guys distracted me with conversation, while others figured out how to get into my stuff. I was so upset, especially since local police would not have been of any assistance. The van driver was either in on the scam or was too afraid to do anything about the situation as well. Other travelers have had bad experiences, too. Beware of thieves on motorbikes who come too close to you on the street or while you are in a vehicle (e.g., stopped at a red light). Watch your bags while you are on the street waiting for transportation or bargaining with someone. Put locks on your bags whenever possible and carry them in front of you. Put bag straps across your body, not just on one shoulder. Carry your bag on the opposite side of traffic if you are walking.
(5) The budget/economy hotels were definitely lacking in quality, service, and spirit. I stayed at the Hotel Sumatera on Jalan SM Raja 35. The room had a musty smell, a lame toilet, and no hot water. The cold water only trickled out of the faucet, too. Breakfast was plain fried rice. Prices were ridiculously expensive due to a medical convention that happened to be in town that day, so getting a room, though a bad one was better than nothing. Several places are within walking distance of each other, so you can walk and find a decent bargain. Hopefully your bags aren’t too heavy! You can also get a discount if you stay more than one or two nights.


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JennyPenny
North Sumatra Trip -- Chapter 1: Jakarta to Medan 3 stars
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I have long wanted to visit North Sumatra in Indonesia. When I finally had the chance, I decided on seeing Danau Toba (Lake Toba) and Pulau Samosir (Samosir Island). While there are lots of different things to do in North Sumatra (e.g., mountain treks, orangutan reserves, village sightseeing), transportation is not fully developed, convenient, or affordable, so it’s best to pick one or two major activities and do them well rather than try to “do the whole province in one go.” Traveling in Indonesia can be very tiring and frustrating, even if you have the money to pay for higher quality services. I therefore suggest spending as little time on the road as possible and more time at your actual destination.

At the start of my trip, I took a morning flight from Jakarta to Medan. There were some delays at the airport, but the wait was not unbearable. Bring along some magazines, books, and music to keep yourself busy during the wait. It’s also a good idea to purchase some snacks at a local supermarket or mall before going to the airport since there are not a ton of food selections at the airport itself. Sometimes meals are provided on flights. I like the food for the most part, but it’s not always vegetarian-friendly and sometimes it’s greasy or oily. As a bit more background, the economy round-trip flight was between US$150-200. You can find cheaper flights, but research in advance since some companies tend to be less reputable and safe. For example, I once took an Adam Air flight and there was duct tape on the seats! Not to mention the very unfortunate accidents that were in the news throughout 2006, which eventually meant the company went under. I recommend Garuda Indonesia out of the bunch. They are not perfect, but they do have a better track record that their competitors. By the way, some people choose to take buses and ships to Sumatra, but I find that these travel options take ages and can be grueling on the body and soul. Go for planes instead.

If you are in Jakarta for some time before heading to North Sumatra (i.e., you’re not in transit from Bali or some other city), be sure to leave your hotel or residence early to get to the airport. Traffic can be terrible, especially during the rainy season. If taking a taxi, I recommend Blue Bird Group taxis. Don’t fall for the imitation blue taxis, though! Depending on where you are located in Jakarta (e.g., north, central, south), the ride can be shorter or longer. Give yourself a minimum of 2-3 hours. If you get to the airport early, that’s great even if you have to wait a while.


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